When a Democratic dream turns into a nightmare

A cautionary tale for Obama and his supporters as they rejoice over Newt Gingrich's rise

Topics: Opening Shot,

When a Democratic dream turns into a nightmareRonald Reagan gives the thumbs-up sign as he leaves the podium after addressing supporters at his Los Angeles election headquarters on Nov. 5, 1980. (Credit: AP)

The most pleasant political development of 2011 for the Obama White House and its allies has undoubtedly been the sudden surge of Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential race. With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, the 68-year-old Georgian has opened leads that are somewhere between sizable and massive in national polls and in three of the four key early states — and in the fourth state, New Hampshire, he’s cut deeply into Mitt Romney’s once-formidable advantage and is threatening to vie for first place. It is no longer absurd to treat Newt as a serious threat to win the nomination.

Which explains the jubilation on the left. If Republicans actually pick Gingrich, “he would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Barry Goldwater,” Rep. Barney Frank proclaimed last week, while Sen. Tom Harkin offered that the one-time House speaker’s nomination would be a “heaven-sent” development for Obama and commentator Mark Shields predicted that with Gingrich leading the GOP ticket “it will not be a competitive race. It will be a landslide.”

It’s certainly possible, even likely, that this giddiness is well-placed. After all, the last time Gingrich commanded the national spotlight — when he was House speaker from 1995 to 1998 — his thin-skinned arrogance, erratic style, and inflammatory and overly combative rhetoric produced some of the most miserable poll numbers ever recorded by a congressional leader. To Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in the 1996 and 1998 elections, he was the gift that wouldn’t stop giving. With all of this history, all of these self-destructive tendencies, and all of the personal and professional baggage he’s taken on since being pushed out as speaker, it’s hardly unreasonable to conclude that Gingrich would perform substantially worse against Obama than a generic Republican presidential candidate.

There’s just one thing: The last time an embattled Democratic White House and its allies got excited like this, things didn’t quite work out like they expected.

This was back in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was well on his way to beating back a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy and the president’s team began to plan for the general election. They liked what they saw: Republicans were on the verge of nominating the standard-bearer of the same conservative movement that 16 years earlier had nominated Goldwater — whose provocative, far-right views terrified swing voters outside the South and helped Lyndon Johnson administer one of the most thorough general election beatings in history.

Carter was in far rougher shape than LBJ had been; steep inflation and interest rates, the Iran hostage crisis, and a divided Democratic Party had conspired to bring his approval ratings to the low-30s — generally lethal territory for an incumbent. But he and his team believed that Ronald Reagan would be easy to portray as a trigger-happy right-wing ideologue and that this image would scare away swing voters just like it had in ’64.

As the primary season wound down in the spring of ’80, there was reason to think they were right. Reagan, who had nearly toppled Gerald Ford in a 1976 primary challenge, came to the race as the clear front-runner, but the nominating process nonetheless proved draining to him, with the party’s moderate and liberal voices (they existed in real numbers back then) frantically warning GOP voters that Reagan would be a risky general election candidate. Two candidates running to his left, George H.W. Bush and John Anderson, took turns highlighting his ideological extremism, each emerging briefly as a serious contender for the nomination. When Anderson wounded Reagan with a series of strong showings in New England, Ford even spoke up to question Reagan’s electability and to make himself available for a last-minute draft.

A solid victory in Illinois steadied Reagan’s campaign and ended the Anderson boomlet and Ford chatter, but an ABC News poll starkly illustrated the damage that had been done: Against Carter and his dismal approval ratings, the survey showed Reagan losing by 18 points. (By comparison, Ford ran 10 points ahead of Carter in the same poll.) That Reagan would end up extending the Carter presidency for another term became conventional wisdom. Typical was this March ’80 column from Joseph C. Harsch, the longtime writer for the Christian Science Monitor:

And Mr. Carter’s chances for re-election go up every time another vigorous and moderate Republican like Sen. Howard Baker or a vigorous, modern, decisive, and experienced Republican like John Connally has to withdraw from lack of support.

There once was a possibility that some Republican would come along who could contest the middle ground of politics with Mr. Carter and give him a real run in the November elections. Suppose the Republicans had been capable of putting together Jerry Ford and John Anderson as their candidates. A Ford-Anderson ticket would have had an excellent chance of winning out over the expectable Carter- Mondale ticket, and perhaps even of reconverting the Republican Party from a class to a national party.

But such a prospect has gone glimmering now. The Republican Party is determined to have Mr. Carter’s favorite Republican as their candidate. Every time Mr. Reagan wins another primary the White House cheers, on the assumption that Mr. Reagan is the easiest Republican for Mr. Carter to defeat in November.

From there, you know the rest. As the spring and summer wore on, the GOP closed ranks around Reagan (it helped that he added Bush to the ticket), while Anderson went off to run a third-party campaign that, because of his own liberalism, threatened Carter as much as Reagan. Meanwhile, with stagflation and the hostage crisis persisting, Carter’s own approval ratings never budged. And as general election candidate, Reagan proved to be far warmer and more reassuring than his intraparty critics had feared and Democrats had hoped. He opened a large lead over Carter in the summer months, saw it tighten around Labor Day after the Democratic convention, then pulled away late and cruised to a 44-state romp on Election Day. Over and over, Carter pleaded with voters to reject Reagan’s extremism, but they simply tuned him out.

Does this mean that history is bound to repeat itself if Newt walks away with the nomination? Not necessarily. Obama isn’t in as bad shape as Carter was, while Gingrich, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, is no Ronald Reagan. Gingrich may simply be the Goldwater that everyone thought Reagan was back in 1980.

Then again, when voters are motivated enough to throw out an incumbent, the bar for the opposition party isn’t that high. Reagan’s triumph showed this. Had he been the nominee in ’76, when voters were still angry with Republicans for Watergate and Carter was just a refreshing outsider from Georgia, all of the general election attacks on Reagan that fizzled in ’80 would have had a very different impact. Which is another way of saying that when the climate is just right, very strange things can happen.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>